Analysis: Iowa offense shows disconnect between QBs, WRs

Mark Emmert

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The Kinnick Stadium scoreboard showed the Iowa offense with 47 points in Friday’s spring football game.

But that was fake news.

The deeper truth was that the Hawkeyes sputtered for most of the four quarters, particularly in the passing game. Quarterbacks Tyler Wiegers and Nathan Stanley were continually off-target, especially with a raw group of wide receivers. Not only were they not operating on the same page, at times it appeared they weren't even in the same playbook.

Iowa’s offense reached the end zone only twice, both after interceptions put it in the red zone.

Iowa sophomore tight end Noah Fant catches a pass at the team's spring game Friday in Kinnick Stadium.

“We’re going to have to have better tempo than we did (Friday), certainly if we’re going to be able to do the things we want to do,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.

Defenses are typically farther ahead than offenses in the spring time, so Friday’s result wasn’t a shock. But the question marks surrounding Iowa’s offense remain unanswered. Neither quarterback vying for the starting job distinguished himself. No wide receiver appeared to be capable of becoming a go-to option.

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It’s a chicken-and-egg question of which has to happen first — the emergence of a quarterback or some playmakers? In the absence of both, well, you get what the estimated 16,500 fans saw as spring practices concluded Friday.

That was an offense under first-time coordinator Brian Ferentz that looked a lot like the one Greg Davis had used the previous four seasons.

“We've never looked real pretty in the spring — at least I can't remember a year where that's the case,” said Kirk Ferentz, in his 19th year as head coach. “That's just part of spring practice, and if we're there on Aug. 30 I'll be a little concerned. But hopefully we'll be further ahead at that point."

The offensive MVP on Friday was redshirt freshman running back Toren Young, who showed a punishing style that was particularly effective in short-yardage situations. Young bulled into the end zone from 14 yards out on a fourth-and-one carry for the final touchdown and seemed to distance himself from sophomore Toks Akinribade in the bid to be Akrum Wadley’s primary backup this fall.

“I just liked the energy he ran with and the toughness he ran with,” Kirk Ferentz said of Young.

A deep corps of tight ends got the bulk of the passing targets — and catches — led by second-year players Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson. Those two frequently were on the field together with the first-team offense, fulfilling a pledge Brian Ferentz made last week when he spoke to reporters about relying on his best athletes, even if that means using multiple tight ends.

“With our Iowa offense, a lot of stuff goes through the tight ends, so we try to do as much as we can, try to be as perfect as we can,” Fant said of Hockenson and himself. “I feel like both of us can do quite a bit of things.”

They showed that Friday, catching passes over the middle, in traffic. The blocking may be a work in progress, but Fant and Hockenson will be tough assignment for opposing linebackers.

If the quarterback can get them the ball.

The defense “won” the game, which features quirky scoring rules, 63-47. But it wasn’t really that close. Safety Jake Gervase intercepted three passes, and returned one for a touchdown; a 59-yard scamper after Wiegers overthrew Fant that was the most electrifying play of the evening.

So what did we ultimately learn about Iowa’s offense Friday? Nothing that wasn’t already known.

One of the quarterbacks needs to seize the starting job, and get control of the offense. The wide receiver position is wide open for any true freshman who steps on campus in June and shows a game-breaking presence.

The running game is the bread and butter, as it typically is for the Hawkeyes, behind a veteran offensive line that is the strength of the offense. That unit will need to jell from the beginning of the season, which begins Sept. 2 against Wyoming, to allow for the passing game to emerge.

Getting a healthy Wadley back will help. The senior sat out the spring to let a January knee surgery heal. He told reporters afterward that his goal is to gain 1,400 yards rushing and win the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s top running back.

That would certainly be a boost.

So will a healthy Matt VandeBerg, the Hawkeyes’ most accomplished receiver, who should be back in June after a foot injury.

“It’s a fine line for us. It’s usually a couple tweaks here and there and you’ve got a chance to be a little bit better” in the passing game, Kirk Ferentz said.

“We’ll be a better team when we get VandeBerg out there. We’ll be a better team when Wadley is out there. We need some more help and maturity on the outside with our receivers.”